AUGUSTA — Before every game, the Cony High School boys basketball team gathers in the locker room. Then the lights go out.

The Rams sit, alone with their thoughts. They focus. They think about the game and the plays they’re going to need to make to win and how they need to make those plays.

“Everyone’s quiet,” senior forward Ian Bowers said. “And we just think about what we have to do, what our jobs are, and we just go out.”

It’s a way to block out any nerves, pressure or stress, all of which will be ramping up for Cony and other boys and girls basketball teams across the state in the coming weeks. The scene will soon shift to the tournament venues — the Civic Center in Augusta, the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor and the Portland Expo Center — and that will mean big crowds, elimination games and screaming, roaring fans.

“I think that I can speak for a lot of people. You feel like you’re going to throw up,” Skowhegan guard Sydney Ames said. “It is a lot, when you’re out there and warming up, and there’s excitement and there’s energy. I feel a little bit nauseous.”

The Maine high school basketball tournament gets under way in earnest with regional quarterfinal games tipping off Friday night. The pressure will mount and the crowds will increase after each round.

The pressure of do-or-die games is just added to the mountain of stress that can be waiting for the players off the court, making the tournament as much of a mental ordeal as a physical one.

“It’s really when you buckle down and really get to work,” said Krista Chase, a guidance counselor and the field hockey coach at Mt. Ararat. “But it’s also late nights, and travel, and the tests don’t stop, and the other obligations don’t stop. … It’s still a lot of pressure because school doesn’t stop. You don’t get to go in late the next day.”

“It does put a little more pressure on you, thinking you need to do better or you need to be good,” Gardiner forward Aimee Adams added. “I’ve noticed some of my teammates stressing out if they have a bad game, like if they’re not making any shots or their passes are just not good. … If that happens at the Civic Center, then they’ll really get stressed out, because there are so many people there.”

It’s a lot to process for the players taking the court. And as they begin what they hope are championship runs, it can be difficult to handle.

“It’s really the buildup of these games and events,” said Adam Feit, a doctoral student in Springfield (Massachusetts) College’s sports psychology program. “It’s not necessarily the game, I feel like it’s everything that surrounds it. You have the media issues, you have travel issues. … There are a lot of things happening. There are a lot of distractions.”

FEAR FACTOR

Two years ago, Alyssa Genness was on the Messalonskee girls basketball team that won the Class A championship.

Now a senior, Genness will try to help guide the Eagles on another deep Civic Center run. She said she’s expecting those same jitters to come back.

“All the time,” she said. “When I get out on that floor, the butterflies come immediately. But as soon as you start playing, they just fade away and you play your game.”

For some, it’s not so easy. There’s a fear that can take hold as the pressure sinks in, and players find themselves struggling to handle the weight of the moment.

“The choking phenomenon is very real,” Feit said. “It’s the same game, it’s played with the same ball, the same amount of time, but now there are more people there. … There’s the physical symptoms of somatic anxiety, where (you get) those butterflies, the sweating, the heart rate.”

The source of that anxiety is different on a case-by-case basis. Dr. Erin Hatch, a sports psychologist at the University of Southern Maine and Maine Medical Partners, said players often worry about how they’ll be perceived if they make a mistake in the tournament.

“They’re concerned about what others think of them, and that’s just a common theme for adolescents in general to be worried about,” she said. “That pressure to say, ‘If I don’t perform perfectly, then what are my teammates going to think, what’s my coach going to think, and what does that mean about me as a person?'”

Chase said the players she meets with tend to have a different concern — they don’t want the season to end because of them.

“Letting the team down. That’s what I see,” she said. “Sometimes it’s wanting to live up to parents’ expectations or sometimes it has to do with other people, but a lot of times it’s wanting to do the best they can for the team and their teammates.”

Leavitt boys coach Mike Hathaway said the pressure of these games has increased over time, with social media being a primary cause.

“I think (there’s) way more (stress). I don’t even think it’s close,” he said. “Everyone will know who played well and who didn’t within hours. … If you miss that free throw, everyone is going to be talking about it — that night — and that’s different than it used to be.”

A FULL PLATE

Even for the players who find a rhythm on the court, the pressures and stresses don’t end with the final buzzer. There are papers to write, tests to take, colleges to apply for and jobs to handle.

“There’s always something going on,” Maranacook senior guard Duncan Rogers said. “I can’t remember the last day I had free.”

The off-the-court load mixed with the increase in pressure on it can be a daunting combination.

“It does get pretty tough,” Gardiner’s Adams said. “It’s hard getting all your work done and focusing on the game at the same time. I had to apply to college, try to keep my grades up, and there’s a lot of pressure too when you’re playing. … We try to maintain a good focus on not stressing out too much.”

With so much on the plate, spare hours — or even minutes — become harder and harder to find.

“Time is always running out, and I think they’re pulled in so many different directions that sometimes it can get really overwhelming,” Chase said. “Several times a month I’ll have athletes come in, just completely overwhelmed because they’re trying to juggle everything.”

Hatch said teenagers deal with more complications in their lives than they did in previous decades or generations.

“I would say that adolescents today are kind of constantly ‘on.’ There’s always someone watching, in a way,” she said. “It’s always been there to an extent, but I do believe that constant state of being on has worsened it for sure. … They’re kind of getting to that point of ‘What’s my future going to be? How am I going to figure this piece out?’ ”

Messalonskee girls coach and guidance counselor Keith Derosby agreed.

“It feels like everything they do is under scrutiny,” he said. “They’re under eyes the second they wake up in the morning.”

 

HELPING THEM COPE

With pressure all around, the players who will take the floor in Augusta, Bangor and Portland know they need to find their own ways to cope during these games, when that pressure will be at its highest.

The Cony boys do their “lights out” ritual, a practice coach T.J. Maines brought over from his days playing for his father, Tom, at Morse High School in Bath. Rogers said Maranacook goes the opposite direction.

“Before games we listen to music, we get hyped,” he said. “We’re all supporting each other, and it’s just a good vibe in the locker room.”

Winthrop forward Jevin Smith, who said he was “a wreck” when he first played in tournament games at the Civic Center, said he prefers to prepare on his own.

“I like to separate myself from my teammates and just listen to music,” he said. “That’s how I focus.”

While the players cope, the coaches help them by making sure they’re prepared for the tournament’s bright lights. Winthrop boys coach Todd MacArthur said he cranks up the intensity at practice, helping to ensure his players will be ready for the tournament gut checks.

“We try to create practices that are tougher than games,” he said. “When that moment comes, (they think) ‘Oh, this is pretty easy. We can do this.'”

Others find it best to alleviate the pressure as much as they can. Derosby encourages a social media blackout during the postseason and hands out prizes after practices, something as simple as popsicles or stress balls.

“Something to remind them to just have fun and relax,” he said.

Maranacook boys coach Rob Schmidt said he does both — intense practices to build up the players’ ability under pressure, while mixing in half-court shooting competitions and pizza during film studies to keep them loose.

“It lightens the mood. It is meant to alleviate some of that self-imposed pressure that a lot of these guys put on themselves,” he said. “As coaches, we need to recognize when some of that pressure is coming down too much and when we need to make adjustments.”

No matter the approach, however, coaches emphasize the same thing: The tournament is an opportunity to succeed, more than a chance to fail.

“You have an opportunity to do something, and not a lot of people have that opportunity,” Maines said. “I think that’s a more positive way to look at the pressure, rather than ‘If you screw up, everyone’s going to be down on you.’ You’ve got to flip it into more of a positive.”

A lot of the players hear that message.

“Pressure doesn’t really get to me as much as some other people, because I just calm down and think of pressure as a good thing,” Messalonskee senior forward Katie Seekins said. “I just need to enjoy this moment. These upcoming games will be the last of my career. So I embrace it.”

 

Portland Press Herald staff writer Steve Craig contributed to this report.

 

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

 


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